Back to School (August 18, 1999)

Nabbed back in March for speeding in my 1964 station wagon (“I didn’t think this old wreck would go that fast,” the Highway Patrol Officer said sarcastically as he wrote me up for a 78 mph violation) I finally made it to traffic school last week. Under California law you can thus shield your rashness from the insurance companies, provided there’s at least an 18-month interval from your last citation.

Down the years, here in the Golden State, I’ve been to maybe four such sessions, which have to last eight hours. My first such school, back in the late 1980s, was in Riverside, on the eastern margin of the greater Los Angeles area. The composition of the 30-odd people was 50 percent white, 50 percent black or Hispanic. At all classes the initial routine is for each person to divulge name and cause of citation. In the Riverside class almost all the blacks and Hispanics said they’d been cited for going a few miles over the limit, in urban areas: 40 mph instead of 35 mph; or 30 mph instead of 25 mph. So reasonably enough, all the blacks and Hispanics thought they’d been framed. Almost all the whites had been caught speeding on the highway, doing 70 and over. They all thought they’d been breaking the law. 

My next class, in Santa Cruz, was run by a California Highway Patrol officer who spent most of the session giving us useful hints on how to avoid being caught speeding. In Berkeley a couple of years ago, our class was run by a former alcoholic who underwent visible nervous breakdown throughout the eight-hour session, said break-down prompted by anecdotes about his daughter’s driving skills and her indifference to her father. As he issued our certificates he tearfully thanked us for sharing.

The class in Eureka last week was run by a former cop from San Diego, who divides his time between running a driving school and representing tax deadbeats before the IRS. He offered a torrent of statistics. The most dangerous time to drive: Friday evening, closely followed by Saturday night, closely followed by Sunday night. The safest day is Tuesday. The last 24-hour period in California in which no one was killed on the roads was on May 1, 1991 (which turns out to have been a Wednesday).

Amid this deluge of numbers he paused to review the best way to deal with the officer as he approaches your car. It’s best, he said, to have your hands up on the wheel. In my case, I was groping under the seat for my registration, and when the itchy young officer asked that I lean over and lower the passenger window, the handle came off in my hand. The instructor plunged into cop’s-eye view about what it was like to approach a car. Death could be waiting. There was no job, he told us, more perilous than that of the police officer.

I told him I didn’t think this claim was true; told him that in fact police work is among the safer occupations, that the likelihood of being killed in the line of duty was exceedingly slim. He held his ground, but the figures support my view. If you tot up the numbers of local police, sheriff’s deputies, state police, special police (a mysterious category in the U.S. Statistical Abstract) and all sworn officers both full- and part-time, the total in 1993 was 661,103. The total of police killed accidentally and feloniously in that year across the country was 129, which seems to be about average in any year. This gives a death rate per 100,000 cops of 20, most of whom are probably killed in car crashes. The rate of death per 100,000 in coal mining was 38 in 1995, making it the riskiest job, followed by other forms of mining (25), oil and gas extraction (23), agriculture, forestry and fishing (22). If cops walked more and drove less, they’d probably halve their death rate, putting them on par with people in the electrical, gas and sanitary services, at eight or so per 100,000.

That wasn’t my only tussle of the evening in the traffic class. We tangled again on the subject of drunk driving. After reciting the savage penalties meted out to those caught driving under the influence of alcohol, the instructor gave an impassioned speech in favor of the pillory of public ridicule and contempt, meaning in this instance that convicted drunks would have to display orange license tags. I told the class I thought penalties for drunk driving were already out of hand, at least for those who had caused no harm. This intervention was badly timed, because the instructor completed the class by showing a half-hour movie about a teenage drunk who killed a young woman, and his consequent remorse. I felt my classmates were glancing at me with reproving eyes, as though I had somehow argued that the teen drunk killer should have been levied a $10 fine and then handed back his driver’s license. The big disclosure of the evening is that the American Psychiatric Association is putting road rage in its next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, meaning that this nebulous category has now been okayed by shrinks as a bona fide condition, amenable to treatment by anti-depressants and kindred potions. Having made road rage official, the shrinks can now begin to coin money off it.

The benefits of the traffic class? I drove home carefully, 60 miles across the mountains, mindful of one particular admonition of the instructor, later confirmed by California’s Fish and Game department. If I struck a bear, tied it to the roof of my car, got it home undetected and was later tempted to sell three or more parts of its anatomy — the gallbladder is particularly esteemed by Asians for medical reasons — I would be liable to at least a year in prison for a felony, plus $10,000 fine. Bear poachers beware.

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